As a part of heart month, we sat down with Dr. Howard Weitz to discuss his career in cardiology—from inspired walks through a giant heart when he was a boy to helping patients strengthen their own for surgery.
Howard Weitz, MD, is the director of the Division of Cardiology and the associate chairman and master clinician of the Department of Medicine. He received his degree from Jefferson Medical College in 1978, now known as the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University, completed his residency as Chief Medical Resident and his fellowship in Cardiovascular Diseases.
Dr. Weitz is a member of the American College of Cardiology, American Heart Association and American College of Physicians. He has been recognized in Philadelphia Magazine’s Top Docs issue more than five times since 2010, and appears on the popular Annals of Internal Medicine video series “Consult Guys,” alongside his colleague and friend Dr. Geno Merli.
“Howard epitomizes the ideal physician,” said Dr. Gregory Kane, MD, professor of medicine and Chair of the Department of Medicine. “He is a compassionate clinician and exceptional educator.”
Dr. Weitz is the epitome of a Jeffersonian and a force in the field of cardiology—which, surprisingly, is a field he never intended to enter.
“I always wanted to be an engineer,” explained Dr. Weitz during an interview. “If I were a kid today, I’d be that kid hacking into secure data systems.”
It was his passion for helping people and keen interest in science that led him to shift from engineering to doctoring.
“I became interested in science largely because I used to hang out at The Franklin Institute,” recalled Dr. Weitz. “Just to give you an example of how different the times were—I was nine and lived in Northeast Philadelphia and I’d take a bus, a subway and a long walk with my cousin Larry. My mom would pack us lunch.”
The nostalgic thoughts made Dr. Weitz lean back into his chair. His office is bright with large windows, a wide window sill is adorned with family photos and beside tall crammed bookshelves, stacks of more books decorate the space.
“I always found the heart to be the heart of The Franklin Institute,” Dr. Weitz continued. “There was the big train engine; the aviation area was neat; but for me, it was always the heart. I was fascinated by the exhibit outside the actual heart model. It had some early heart valves or heart treatments that when you’re nine or 10 years old doesn’t mean much…but it had an impact on me.”
Was it just happenstance that The Franklin Institute contacted Dr. Weitz when they formed an advisor group to refurbish The Giant Heart in 2004? They surely didn’t know his connection as a boy.
“The heart was pretty tired looking. It needed a transplant,” Dr. Weitz recalled. “But it was a place I went through a hundred times. I couldn’t help but think, wow, it’s all circling back.”
“Truth is stranger than fiction,” he said with a smile.
Another pivotal experience that led Dr. Weitz to doctoring came in high school. He attended Northeast High School, a public school in Northeast Philadelphia. The Space Research Center (SPARC), an after-school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program, was established while he was a student there in the late 1960s.
“In those days astronauts were national heroes,” Dr. Weitz said. “It really made all disciplines of science so real and cool. It gave you a cohort of kids who were like you—interested in science and investigation.”
It was around this time that Dr. Weitz’s parents gave him a book on the Mayo Brothers. He remembers reading about the pair that came from “nowhere farm country” and went on to create the mighty hospital and medical center in Rochester, Minnesota. “Who could ever believe that years later, I would be invited to lecture and teach there and become a collaborator in a variety of projects with the Mayo Clinic and their physicians,” said Weitz.
Before his professorship, he trained in internal medicine and then did a cardiology fellowship—not because he wanted to be a cardiologist—but to be a great internist. He wanted to take care of patients at medical risk for non-cardiac surgery (years later, he would co-edit a book on the very topic). In 1982, Dr. Willis Maddrey became the chair of medicine and encouraged Dr. Weitz to direct his career to the sickest of patients, those with complex medical illness in addition to their heart disease.
Dr. Weitz maintains that there isn’t a single thing he would change about the path he took to cardiology.
It allows him to connect and serve a vulnerable patient population. “A favorite part of my job is helping a patient whose heart disease puts them at high risk of complication get through a major surgery they otherwise would have been excluded from,” he said. He explained that he has recently expanded his cardiology practice to the care of cancer patients with heart disease, who face treatments that have the potential to lead to heart complications.
“I use my professional life as an example to students that I mentor who are unsure about what they want to do,” Dr. Weitz said. “I was a trained cardiologist not doing primary cardiology for seven years before I went into clinical cardiology.”
“I cannot think of a better profession to be in. It has its challenges, but it’s still the best.”